A Billion Dollar Baby on the Desolate Plains

Tyson Meade reflects on Alice Cooper, rock & roll gender-bending, and 45 years of Billion Dollar Babies

In 1973, when I was 11 and on a day trip with my mom and dad to Tulsa, I bought Alice Cooper’s newly released Billion Dollar Babies. At the time, I had no idea how it would shape who I am as an artist, as a singer, and even as a person. Melodrama notwithstanding, Billion Dollar Babies changed my life.

Going to Tulsa, an hour’s blue highway drive from my family’s 10 acres in the Osage Hills, was a big deal. This only happened once every two or three months, and sometimes not even that often. Our home, seven miles from the Bartlesville city limits, was similar to other acreages along those Oklahoma county roads. Out where I lived, it was not unusual to pass tractors, hay balers, road graders, or even horses, where the faint strains of Buck Owens, Donna Fargo, or Southern Baptist ministers belched from farm truck radios.

Our first stop was at a junkyard in North Tulsa. While my mom stayed in the truck and read her Erma Bombeck book, my dad spent the morning looking for small steam engines or steam engine parts. I explored with my dad.

My mom often stayed in the car because Dad liked to mark territory in places like junkyards. This was a constant source of embarrassment for Mom, who was actually a bit of a prude. When I was 5 I peed in front of some neighbors nonchalantly. Mom saw. This is the only time I remember her whipping the hell out of me. I am pee shy to this day.

My dad, a carnival huckster without the carnival, grew up on a farm but ran off to California at 16 to work in the shipyards and then later joined the merchant marines. At one point, once he had settled down on Sand Creek there in the Osage where I was born and raised, my dad amassed 44 steam engine tractors and at least one threshing machine. He dreamed of opening an American Old West tiny town museum on our 10 acres, which he christened the W. H. Meade estate, his first and middle names being William and Howard. That dream never became reality because a local media baron, Mr. James C. Leake, bought every last steam engine from my dad, putting them in his own Horseless Carriage Museum in Muskogee, Oklahoma. My dad didn’t mind selling his dream because he tripled his money.

Sometimes on these day trips, I would stay in the car and practice rudiments on the dashboard, paradiddles mainly — right-left-right-right, left-right-left-left. When I was 9, I had started taking drum lessons when other kids were playing baseball.

That day, we ate lunch at a hole in the wall hamburger joint. I brought my sticks inside and practiced paradiddles on the table of the luncheonette — right-left-right-right, left-right-left-left. After lunch, we were off to Sears, the biggest department store in the world, or at least it seemed to me at the time. Sears sprawled out over two stories and may or may not have taken up a whole city block. Dad looked at tools, mom at dresses. I headed straight for the records.

The record department was just a few racks of records squeezed in between the men’s department and housewares. My parents knew that for as long as they shopped, I would be transfixed there, often looking at the same albums over and over, putting a story to the cover art, trying to figure out who sang, who drummed, who played guitar. This was how I loved to occupy myself for an hour or two. For me, this was church.

Today, I say I embraced my otherness then, but at the time I am not sure how much I embraced being the alien, the fey little outcast, the only boy in my class not on the basketball team, the boy with the drumsticks playing paradiddles on chin up bars, the merry-go-round, the cafeteria bench seats. I do know, however, that my love for music and drumming was a consolation during those times when I felt so isolated and so other.

Memory plays tricks. My perceived vision of how I saw Alice and his band is not necessarily factual. And Billion Dollar Babies was by no means my introduction to the group, or even actually the group’s best album, but it is an important building block in the construction of my rock and roll psyche, my love for mascara, my affair with leopard print, glitter, gold lamé, and thrift store baby dolls. Billion Dollar Babies is a grand summation of all that was Alice Cooper.

The Alice Cooper Group made their first appearance in the W.H. Meade household via the Love it to Death 8-track in 1971. My brother Curtiss — six years older than me and in junior high at the time — received the 8-track from the Columbia Record Club. The deal, as you may remember, is you get six, or eight, or ten 8-tracks for a penny, or a nickel, or a dime but you, as a member, are obligated to buy five more at club prices during the next year or two years.

Love it to Death became nighttime listening, following an afternoon watching the Munsters, the Addams Family, and science fiction afternoon movies. Curtiss loved to frighten my brother Gentry and me with this 8-track. Now, it seems absurd that something so innocuous, so staged, so vaudevillian, so corny was so scary to us.

As you may remember, Love it to Death contained “Ballad of Dwight Frye,” a song about a mental patient, his escape from a mental hospital to see his 5-year-old daughter, and his run from the law that may have involved a S.W.A.T. team, or something like that. The exact meaning is vague but to 9-year-old me, it was like watching an updated Dracula, Mummy, or Frankenstein.

The song spurred my imagination, filling in the visuals, the possibilities of what was happening to this tortured soul, Dwight. In my head, I concocted my own Dwight Frye short story with the sirens and guitar moans of the song providing the soundtrack. On my latest album Robbing the Nuclear Family, “Motorcycle Boy #3” in some ways owes its pathos to “Ballad of Dwight Frye” — though my song is a true story that takes place in Thailand with my young lover named Bang, not Dwight.

Within a few months of hearing that 8-track, I came to love and even obsess over the Alice Cooper Group. Something triggered in my brain. Gentry felt the same. It pushed him towards discovering and obsessing over Black Sabbath, drawing him into the heavy guitars and the often macabre lyrics.

Strangely, It pushed me into a totally different area from that, one of glitz and glamour — the decadence of glam rock, the yin/yang of feminine and masculine, and a vague angst towards virtually everything regimented, militant, and unquestioningly masculine. Gentry and I never discussed why we loved Alice Cooper, but we both did.

Occasionally, during this time, articles appeared about the Alice Cooper Group, which focused on their debauchery and corruption of America’s youth. Mostly these articles focused on Alice himself.

Through rumor and hearsay, I heard about Alice and his onstage antics. These antics, some rumored, some true, enraged parents, teachers, principals, ministers, and basically everyone else over 30. These antics included cross-dressing, eating feces (onstage), tearing apart live chickens (onstage), destroying hotel rooms, mutilating baby dolls (onstage), hangings and guillotine play (onstage), carousing with loose women, Caligula style orgies, turning the girls next door into harlots, and more cross-dressing.

Alice and his antics were foreign, but shockingly wonderful, to my young mind. Sonny and Cher were the American Pop Ambassadors who bridged fringe society with primetime television. Three Dog Night, The Guess Who, and Chicago seemed to define the current state of rock, which was meant as much for adults as for teenagers. Chicago shocked no one. The Alice Cooper Group was different, was scary, was unique, was wonderful, was fronted by a slightly demented transsexual, or so I believed.

They helped misfits fit — misfits who were actually too young to know they were misfits. That they took the bad boy image that the Rolling Stones had touted and amplified it to 11 made them even more appealing to me. I was silently bucking the Hee Haw world around me, the Johnny Cash stern absurdities, Elvis Presley’s expanding waistline. Alice, the lanky androgynous male singer with the little girl’s name, made Mick Jagger look like a Southern Baptist minister by comparison.

Alice was my first male role model not afraid to flaunt his femininity, launching his own unisex mascara line appropriately named “Whiplash.” By the time Billion Dollar Babies arrived, I was an Alice Cooper Group acolyte. And here I was, at Sears, hoping to soon own this album that down to the core of my being, I knew I had to have.

When they were done browsing, Mom came to grab me. She knew I would like to buy an album. I would not be upset if I did not but I would be ecstatic if I did. She let me pick out something. Naturally, I knew Billion Dollar Babies was the album to take home. Gentry bought magazines completely dedicated entirely to Alice and his exploits, so I knew I would get the approval from him with this purchase.

Gentry, who was in ninth grade, wore Levi super bells, plain white t-shirts, and white Chuck Taylors, often with no socks, even in winter. He had thick, wavy, shoulder length auburn hair that he parted in the middle. That particular day he was out in the Osage on his blue Yamaha 100 motorbike, but his music opinion always counted when I bought records. I knew when I brought home this gem that he would say something along the lines of: “Wow, you are less of a dork than I thought.”

Mom bought me the record. She was oblivious to how allegedly dangerous to the youth the Alice Cooper Group was. Or maybe she just acted as if she was. Years later, I would discover that the group’s manager fed a lot of preposterous stories to the media to get Alice attention to keep him in the papers to help make him an outlaw to adults, a savior to teens. Because of this, with the release of Billion Dollar Babies, Alice was now a household name.

I could hardly contain my excitement once I held the album in my arms.

In the truck on the way home, I carefully opened it, not knowing what waited for me inside. Alice’s albums tended to have more than just a blank white sleeve inside. School’s Out actually folded out to become a miniature school desk. Killer had a 1972 poster calendar of Alice hanged.

A treasure trove awaited me inside Billion Dollar Babies.  First of all, the album cover is a gatefold shaped like a wallet. Second, an oversized billion-dollar bill — the size of a small poster printed on the front and back — is attached to a cardboard money clip. Third, there are lyrics printed on the sleeve, a first for Alice. Fourth, there is a picture on the other side of the sleeve of the band all in white with money everywhere, white bunnies, and babies donning the Alice makeup. The band looks cooler than ever, especially guitarist Glen Buxton with all of his rings and bracelets. Last, the several wallet size photos attached to each other that I later separated along the perforated edges and put in a photo wallet.

As we drove home, I looked at the lyrics, at the song titles, at all of the printed information. “Raped and Freezing,” the second song on the album, stumped me. I asked Mom what “raped” meant.  As a responsible parent, and doing exactly what I would do now if an 11-year-old asked me, she pondered this a minute and then replied she didn’t know.

Dad let me listen to KELI, the local top 40 AM radio station, on the way home. AM was the industry standard in 1973. No one I knew had FM radios in their cars at this time. At one point, Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band” played. Although I did not understand exactly what it was about other than being in a rock & roll band, I loved it.

The rock & roll landscape of 1973 was decidedly masculine. “We’re an American Band” and Grand Funk themselves were a direct contrast to the fey girlie image that Alice embodied. This testosterone driven anthem was dedicated to male lust towards female groupies. Sure, Mark Farner had long hair but he performed shirtless so that everyone could see just how masculine and manly he was. He pumped iron. Everyone knew that.

Long hair and flower power had become accepted, part of mass culture. Thus, Grand Funk was a safe haven for masculinity. Young males didn’t have to question their sexuality as they blasted Grand Funk from their Camaro 8-tracks. Grand Funk represented a sexually liberated young America, as long as the sexually liberated were heterosexual.

The other rock acts that captured mid-America and sold tons of records, if not overtly masculine, were still masculine. These groups — Emerson Lake and Palmer (intellectually masculine), Black Sabbath (metal masculine), Led Zeppelin (free love trippy mythically masculine,) and Deep Purple (overtly Neanderthal masculine) — flirted not with their feminine sides.

Meanwhile, Alice played up the whole homosexual-queen-freak aspect of his image. This he did for notoriety. Oddly, he was — and is — as straight as they come. Gender fluidity shocked, got press, gained fans, and sold records, briefly making Alice the biggest rock star in the world. He was smart to know this.

What about Bowie, you may ask? In 1973, Bowie had not cracked America, so he was not yet on my radar. What about Elton John? Sir Elton was outrageous, but not looked upon as sexually deviant yet, and Alice beat him to the punch anyway. As a rock & roll star, Alice stood alone in his sexual ambiguity, which he had been doing since 1971 as a hit-maker, and before that as a cult figure shepherded by Frank Zappa.

Strangely, my mom was never threatened or even really shocked by Alice Cooper. Her best friend, a devout member of the First Baptist Church, told her that our listening choices — referring to Gentry and me — should be monitored, that Alice Cooper was a bad influence, would tarnish our faith in our lord and savior above. My mom didn’t listen to this. She trusted us. After all, this was only music. Since she trusted us, we never rebelled, or rather, rebelled against her.

There were others to rebel against, like the masochistic principal/gym teacher of my small country school in the heart of the Osage. He loved ostracizing and separating kids, making kids like me feel alienated, isolated, disenfranchised. Petrified, I watched as he severely whipped a boy for smarting off.

The boy had just moved to Oklahoma from California. Instantaneously, he had become the most popular kid in school. We were all enamored with him. His name was David. All of us country kids had question upon question about his home state. To us kids born in the Osage, California seemed so foreign, so exotic, with surfing and malls and movie stars.

David was talking during some sports instruction. Principal Cuntingham may have given David a warning. All I remember is Cuntingham severely whipping David in front of everyone. If this happened today, there would be a prison sentence involved. Back in 1973 at a country school in Oklahoma, this was the norm.

After that happened, David was a pariah. No one talked to him or went near him. The principal was like a wrathful god.  He could — and would — come down on any child at any time.

“Hey Mr. Blue Legs where are you taking me?”

That lyric from School’s Out “Public Animal #9” looped in my head. By playing Alice Cooper songs in my head, I dealt with being other, disenfranchised, alienated — called a sissy by Principal Blue Legs. I would not let him break me. I would not cry.

However, I should say here that I was popular with my classmates.  My teachers were the ones with issues, lost somewhere in their own good ol’ days of the past. Most teachers at this parochial country school did not know how to respond to a fey rock and roll kid who played drums, not basketball, who liked to play dolls and dress-up with the girls as much as he liked to build forts and climb trees with the boys.

At home, Alice Cooper became the common bond between Gentry and me. I was in awe when Gentry drew the “School’s Out” heart and dagger tattoo on a t-shirt. Later when he grew out of the shirt and I grew into it, it became one of my favorite tees. All these years later, I still have it. All of this prepared me for the coming of Billion Dollar Babies.

It was late afternoon. Dad went out into his shop and puttered around on a steam engine that he’d found parts for at the scrap yard. Dad liked to tinker in his shop but he also knew in the back of his mind that he could make at least a few hundred on something he sold to Mr. Leake.

Mom continued reading her Erma Bombeck book in her bedroom. My siblings were all gone. That meant one thing: I had the living room to blast Alice. In a house full of siblings and parents, I never knew when I would get to play Alice on the living room stereo, a Montgomery Ward Airline console stereo.

I put on the record, turned up the volume, listened, and was instantly hooked. As I looked at all of the photos and paraphernalia inside the album, I was transported to another dimension. I dreamt what it must be like to be Alice and to be a billion dollar baby. Maybe I was, in fact, a billion dollar baby. As an outcast, I was “a rubber little monster, grimy little weasel.” Alice sang, sang to misfit me. I clung to every word. Since the lyrics were printed on the sleeve, I could read every word too.

The album starts out with “Hello Hooray,” a traditional folk song that the group turns into a rock anthem. This song hooked me, became my anthem. I played it over and over. I loved the rest of the album but this song was my song. It became the template for what I would become, or would hope to become as a vocalist. I sang it, bellowed it, and screamed it the way Alice did or, at least, the way I thought Alice did. This song became part of my soul.

“Hello Hooray” showed me the power of voice and the power of dynamics. His scream could, within seconds, become a whisper, or vice versa. I listened to his breathing, his intonation, his range of emotions. I became his pupil, though he did not know it.

Singing, especially the way Alice sang, had an importance and immediacy that spoke to me. Hearing Alice put such emotion and desperation in his songs showed me that singing had more meaning than drumming. I could play drums and technically I was very good since I had been carrying my sticks around with me practicing paradiddles everywhere on everything. Nevertheless, drumming did not express the emotions the way singing did.

Meanwhile, in her room — with the days of the calendar flipping like in an Orson Welles movie — my mom read Erma Bombeck, Reader’s Digest, the Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, and Redbook and never told me to stop singing. Or when I played my drums along to the record, she never complained or made me stop.  And yes, drums are loud, especially when you are not the one playing them.

Coinciding with puberty, the arrival of Billion Dollar Babies held my mind and heart captive by the freedom, or perceived freedom, that Alice and his bandmates offered. I was not sexually attracted to Alice or his group; I wanted to be Alice, to witness this freedom he had sexually. More than ever, I wanted to be a rock star too. This I could not have verbalized as a tween. All I could blurt out is:

 “I think he’s cool. I love Neil Smith. I want to play drums like him.”

Alice, without a doubt, started me on my glam journey. This journey led me to discover all of the gender-bending glam heroes of the time: Bowie, the Dolls, Iggy, Sparks, Mott. Not only that, being exposed to someone so outrageously loved and despised helped mold, at an early age, who I would become years later in my bands Defenestration and Chainsaw Kittens, and later as a solo artist. Ironically, he did all of this to gain attention as a character while my reason was to be comfortable in my own fey skin.

For the last 45 years, Billion Dollar Babies has been a touchstone for me, a continual source of inspiration. My new album Robbing the Nuclear Family could be seen as one of Billion Dollar Babies’ many grandchildren with the second song on the album “He’s the Candy” starting out with the lines:

“I’ve been robbing the nuclear family. Maybe you like me or you can’t stand me.”

Those words convey the same sort of buck-the-norm attitude that Alice, my prepubescent role model, preached. The 11-year-old me did not see the irony in the role model I had picked. I looked upon Alice as a real entity but, at the end of the day, Alice Cooper is only as real as any other literary or theatrical character, be it Holden Caulfield, Dracula, Marcia Brady, or Huck Finn. But then again, how real are any of us?

Recently, I christened my first solo art exhibition Billion Dollar Babies’ Babies’ Barbies. In this show, I hold that the billion dollar babies have grown up and had babies and those babies have transformed Barbies. The babies and grandbabies have adopted their own mythology surrounding the album and the cultural cataclysm it caused.

When art patrons have come to view the exhibition, seldom do they know or remember, if they are my age or older, the Alice Cooper Group story. For them, the album was not a life-changing event that bridged childhood and puberty, that helped them become who they are, helped them with fierce determination to go against the grain, challenge the norm, stay true to their own identity, forge a new path with mascara and glitter.

Whether Alice knew he was preaching for equality and liberation or just trying to shock, I don’t know. But the Billion Dollar Baby disciples like me took it as a battle cry, interpreted it in our own way. A few years later, that cry would become a gale force when Patti Smith sang: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” Because of Alice and then Patti and now my own experience, I know the importance of what the outsider, the pioneer, the renegade shows and bestows in their art to the generations to follow, what we bestow to the misfits, the alienated, those kids trying to gain footing on their own paths.

Free thinking trailblazers, often, are cult figures like me but then other times, as in the case of Alice, a sea change occurs because the wave crashing upon established mores is so strong. Thank you, Alice, for crashing that wave into the desolate redneck Oklahoma countryside more than 45 years ago. I dread to think what my life would have been like if the most gender-bending music I heard at age 11 was Tony Orlando and Dawn.

Alt-rock godfather and Chainsaw Kittens frontman, Tyson Meade, is back yet again with another fabulous new album, Robbing the Nuclear Family. Like his critically-acclaimed 2014 solo release Tomorrow in Progress, which included fantastic contributions from Smashing PumpkinsJimmy Chamberlin, Other LivesJesse Tabish, and The Flaming LipsDerek Brown, Robbing features contributions from elder statesmen of the Beijing rock scene PK 14, Shanghai violinist Haffijy, The Flaming Lips’ Matt Duckworth, and Grammy-award winning drummer Rob Martin. Robbing also has the heavy imprint of multi-instrumentalist David “Immy” Immerglück of alternative rock greats Counting Crows, Camper Van Beethoven, and the Monks of Doom.

Through the years, Meade has toured with Iggy Pop, Smashing Pumpkins, Jane’s Addiction, the Meat Puppets, and many others. Butch Vig and John Agnello have produced his albums, and Spike Jonze, George Salisbury, and Phil Harder have directed his videos.